If you're just coming here for the first time, uh... you're late. The site is no longer updated daily (see HERE for the story). But it's still kicking 1-2x a week, and it's better late than never! Before reading any of the "reviews", you should read the intro, the FAQ, the MOVIES I HAVE ALREADY SEEN list, and if you want, the glossary of genre terms and "What is Horror?", which explains some of the "that's not horror!" entries. And to keep things clean, all off topic posts are re-dated to be in JANUARY 2007 (which was before I began doing this little project) once they have 'expired' (i.e. are 10 days old).

Due to many people commenting "I have to see this movie!" after a review, I have decided to add Amazon links within the reviews (they are located at the bottom), as well as a few links to the Horror Movie A Day Store around the page, hopefully non-obstructively. Amazon will also automatically link things they find relevant, so there might be a few random links in a review as well. If they become annoying, I'll remove the functionality. Right now I'm just kind of amused what they come up with (for example, they highlighted 'a horror movie' in the middle of one review and it links to, of all things, the 50 Chilling Movies Budget Pack!!!).

Last but not least, some reviews contain spoilers (NOTE - With a few exceptions, anything written on the back of the DVD or that occurs less than halfway through the movie I do NOT consider a spoiler). I will be adding 'spoiler alerts' for these reviews as I go through and re-do the older reviews (longtime readers may notice that there is now a 'show more' which cleaned up the main page, as well as listing the source of the movie I watched, i.e. Theaters, DVD, TV) to reflect the new format. This is time consuming, so bear with me.

Thanks for coming by and be sure to leave comments, play nice, and as always, watch Cathy's Curse.


Blair Witch (2016)

SEPTEMBER 16, 2016


The funny thing about Blair Witch Project is that on its own, there really isn't much to it - there are only three characters (who are easy to dislike for long stretches of the film) and on-screen action is kept to a minimum. And, most notably, there really isn't much of a story in the movie itself - you get these quick references to things that only those (like me) who will scour BlairWitch.com and the tie-in books will fully understand, but remain relatively unexplored within the 80 minute film itself. That might be because it was never supposed to exist as a pure "found footage" movie as we've come to know them - the material of the three filmmakers lost in the woods was supposed to be part of a more traditional (but fake) documentary, but Dan Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez realized they had something special with just that footage alone. So they released the "lost in the woods" footage on its own as a full-length film and repurposed the rest of the material into The Curse of the Blair Witch and other tie-in specials, making history in the process. I'd be willing to bet if they made that movie as originally conceived it would not have been the success that it was, and we certainly wouldn't be here with Blair Witch, a direct sequel tasked that takes a "back to basics" approach, albeit now with the pressure of reviving a potentially lucrative franchise.

And by "direct sequel" I just mean it's not a meta thing like Book of Shadows, but I want to stress that you barely even have to see the first film - let alone remember it - in order to follow this one. Again, a lot of the original's story isn't actually IN the movie proper, and the target audience for horror movies today probably weren't even in first grade when the film hit theaters, so you can easily sense Lionsgate didn't want to alienate anyone by making it Saw-like in its continuity. Normally I'd scoff at this sort of thing, but I see the studio's point; since it only had one (not loved) sequel, the "franchise" hasn't remained in the general public's eye the way, say, Nightmare on Elm Street has - you can bring that series back without having to worry about the audience knowing who Freddy Krueger is. But Blair Witch is a different story, because even people who DO remember the movie might not have ever bothered to dig deep into the "lore", so the new creative team (Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett of You're Next and The Guest fame) have an interesting dilemma - they have to remind the audience who/what the Blair Witch is while following up a movie that had a campaign that largely depended on outside information. Throw too much of that nitty gritty in, and they can't expect a new audience to follow along... but if they make it overly accessible to newcomers they risk annoying the people who wanted a sequel in the first place. Unsurprisingly, they catered more toward the latter option, creating a film that almost borders on remake territory while largely keeping any "reveals" self-contained.

(Warning: big spoilers ahead - this review is more for those who have seen the film already and/or don't care about what it reveals! If you're just curious if I liked it or not - I thought it was OK. I really like the first act and some standout sequences in the rest, but as a Blair Witch devotee I felt a bit underwhelmed.)

For years we've wondered what happened to Heather in that last shot of the film, and what Mike did after that point, and where Josh went, and how their footage was found elsewhere, and so on and so on... but this film doesn't answer any of that. The plot concerns Heather's brother James* being sent a tape that might be of his long-lost sister (the place takes place in 2014, twenty years after BWP's setting) by some internet conspiracy guy named Lane, so naturally he plans to head out to the woods along with three friends and a whole bunch of cameras. The plan is to locate the spot that this tape was supposedly found and start circling from there in order to see if they can find that house where the footage was shot, and in turn maybe find Heather (they don't seem concerned with finding Josh or Mike). When they meet up with Lane, he asks if he and his girlfriend (Valorie Curry from The Following, the only cast member I recognized) can join them, and off to the Black Hills they go, with Lisa (who is making a documentary, of course) filming their car as they walk away from it - a nice little visual nod to the original.

It's this first act that works best. The plot is laid out with minimal excess, and we're brought up to speed on the first film's story (that the three people went into the woods and were never seen again), plus offered a little of what happened after - one of our main characters, Peter, was actually on one of the unsuccessful search parties. As with the original, they're smart enough to throw in some humor (Peter's reaction to a confederate flag hanging in Lane's home is priceless), and what may be my favorite little Easter Egg in the film: they stay in the same motel room before heading out to the woods. The characters are likable, there isn't much being shot for no reason... and most importantly, as a giant fan of the first film, I was happy to be back in that world again. As I've said, I like Book of Shadows, but it's not really a true sequel - it's more like Halloween III in that it's set in a different universe entirely. This film brings us back to the original world (like Halloween 4!), where our characters have never seen The Blair Witch Project because it doesn't exist (and thus, they've also been spared the shitty parodies), and each little mention of Elly Kedward or Coffin Rock made me smile. It was, so far, exactly what I was hoping for when I heard what the film's plot was.

But as I said, it almost feels like a remake at times, and as it went on I found myself feeling more frustrated than intrigued. It's not like a beat for beat remake, but even by sequel standards it sticks a bit too close to the overall structure; even with my spoiler warning I don't think I'm actually giving anything away by saying it seems they end up in the same house near the end of the film. I can't recall if it was ever explicitly said in the first film, but this was Rustin Parr's house - which had been burned down fifty years before (again, per the lore), so how the hell did they end up running around inside of it? And why couldn't any of the search parties find it? This is one question the movie kind of answers, though it's very vague and mostly just adds more questions to the pile. We've all seen enough movies to know "time travel!" when we see it, and there are some cool touches in the idea that time is moving differently for everyone (our main characters are in the woods for like 3-4 days, yet the clean-shaven Zane ages enough to have a full bushy beard by his last appearance), but the film frustratingly refuses to clarify these concepts in any meaningful way. I know being vague was part of the original film's power - but it was also simpler. Time travel (and other things I won't spoil - partly because I don't know what the hell it was supposed to mean) wasn't ever really considered in the context of the film, because the house-burning history hadn't been explained in the first film (just in the books and website), so only nerds like me wondered about the discrepancy - to everyone else it was just some house in the woods. Part of the first film's power was the idea that maybe these kids were just going crazy and there was nothing supernatural going on at all, but this one cements the fact that these woods really DO have something going on that involves the supernatural. Once you get into that area, I think the audience can reasonably expect some explanation for what is going on, because you can no longer coast on the ambiguity. All of the people who watched Blair Witch Project and walked away thinking that Heather had just cracked up now have proof that they were wrong, but that's it - no follow through. You can't just tell someone they're wrong without offering some hard evidence - it's like telling a kid he's grounded without telling him why.

I mean, near the end of the movie there's a pretty big reveal about that tape that sent them on their journey to begin with, and I'm not even sure the characters realize it. That to me seems like a giant missed opportunity to show us something that we haven't seen in one of these movies. Or maybe we have (I know I've seen a lot, but not all of them), but you know what we HAVE seen, a lot? People running through woods with cameras, and people screaming each others' names because they're not sure where they went, and any number of other found footage tropes that the movie gives us instead. See, part of what made the first film such a phenomenon was how unique it was; I know people love to cite Last Broadcast and Cannibal Holocaust as "doing it first", but that's not accurate. Cannibal Holocaust starts off and for quite some time remains a traditionally shot film, with the "found" part of it not even making half of the runtime if memory serves. And Last Broadcast is, ironically, a faux documentary with talking heads and recreations - the same sort of thing Blair Witch Project was originally designed to be. But BWP didn't offer any outside perspective; from start to finish, we are seeing everything through Heather or Josh's POV (or Mike after Josh disappears). Hell, we never see all three of them in the same shot because one of them is always holding the camera. This allowed the filmmakers (or, the cast) to create a subconscious effect on the viewer that keeps the movie from ever feeling anything like those others - and that's why so many scores of found footage movies since are compared to Blair Witch Project and not Cannibal Holocaust.

I bring this up because the movie seems to forget the audience has seen a lot of these things since 1999, and it's not quite as novel anymore. If anything the style is kind of played out; there are still the occasional winners (The Visit, or even closer cousin Willow Creek), but as of late it's the ones that act more like regular documentaries (The Atticus Institute) or rely on surveillance (Hangman) that work better than the ones that put the cameras in the hands of their characters the whole time. The narrative offers a solution to the usual "Why are they filming?" issue by giving them all little ear-cams (they look like Bluetooth headsets), but in execution there isn't much difference to how it looks to us in the audience - lot of shaky-cam, the usual digital hiccups, etc. The best chance they had to give the film something novel in its look is the fact that Lisa brings a drone along for overhead shots - and it never gets used once for a scare scene. Or, to be specific, its CAMERA never gets used for a scare scene - one of the film's best sequences happens when the thing gets stuck in a tree and Ashley (Peter's girlfriend) climbs up to free it. But before then, it's used for a couple of "Let's get a shot of the woods to see how far they are from civilization" kind of big crane-like shots, and nothing else. I guess it's kind of clever in a way, to introduce new tech (they also have GPS, but it never really factors into anything) but ultimately rely on the good ol' fashioned stuff that worked wonders in 1999 (one character even has a tape-based DV camera instead of a newer one with memory cards), but it doesn't change the fact that the special/unique feeling the original film offered obviously no longer applies.

Indeed, some of the best moments of the movie were kind of independent of the POV approach, in that it was the idea of the scene itself that was interesting, not how they filmed it. I already talked about the tree one, but there's also a terrific bit where Lisa is trapped in a tunnel that probably would have been shot more or less the same way if the movie was a traditional feature (she has two cameras, one that she's pushing and one on her ear, that even offers us two angles of the traumatic experience). And there's a surprising detour into body horror territory, where Ashley - who gets a cut on her foot early on - picks at the wound and finds... well, I'm not sure. But it's a creepy bit that is an exception from the film's frustrating vagueness, because it reminded me of Heather finding Josh's... WHAT? in the first film (if memory of the audio commentary serves it was his hair and teeth, but it's impossible to tell in the film itself). I also liked how the stickmen were used, though the POV aesthetic robs us of a clear look at an incredible reaction to one of them being snapped in half (you can only kind of tell what happened in the aftermath, not in the moment itself). I wouldn't go so far as to say that the movie SHOULD have been shot traditionally, but it's odd how often I was either frustrated by its limitations or just plain forgetting that it was supposed to be someone's POV. With so few handheld cameras and so many characters filming (via cameras we often can't even see on the others, blocked by hair or just the way they're standing), it lacks the intimacy the best of this sub-genre offers, where we always know who is filming and never forget that it's their perspective on the events around them. The movie takes time to establish how it can get around the usual "why are they filming?" pratfalls (the cameras are attached to their ears and basically forgotten, plus they have a tree-mounted cam showing the whole campsite), so it's a sin to keep us from ever getting good looks at this stuff. Why bother setting up a "cheat" if you're not going to put it to good use?

Going over it in my head, I realize that perhaps my main issue is that it kind of feels too much like a real movie? I really love the original, in part because they got it so RIGHT - you can easily dupe someone into thinking it's a legit "found footage" movie (or snuff film - inaccurate since no one dies onscreen, but semantics), because there's nothing that gives away the illusion. Even the end credits barely suggested otherwise since the film was shot by its actors and only had like 5-6 guys behind the concept and execution. Not the case here - the sound design alone is on par with any major Hollywood blockbuster, and it's just a bit too slick and too clean to work on that level, courtesy of the hundreds of crew people who worked on it per the end credits, which are as long as any traditional feature. Not that it's a crippling flaw for audiences (obviously, since you can levy the same "complaint" at Cloverfield and Quarantine and those movies weren't hurt any), and again it seems as if they were aiming more at audiences who had a passing familiarity with the original and would check this out the same way they might check out a remake (familiar title, but not a movie they might have actually SEEN). But I'm not that person - I'm the guy who was disappointed the title didn't have a "3" in it. And as a champion of the POV format when its utilized correctly, I had trouble finding much to pass my little test, where I ask why the movie HAD to be shot this way. Apart from the very last scene, I can't think of anything in it that would have lost its impact if it had been shot with regular camera setups, and since everyone has at least one camera we're never with one character long enough to get into their head the way we could Heather's. The POV was what made the first film so good - here it's more of a handicap.

Ultimately, I'm not sure if at this point, a direct Blair Witch Project sequel (at least, one without the original cast - and Heather Donahue ain't ever coming back) could ever be as fully satisfying as I would want. Too much time has passed, and it's not that I've moved on (I'm not lying - I have the books sitting right here next to me as I started re-reading them when the news broke that "The Woods" was actually Blair Witch), but horror itself has. What was once completely unique is now an over saturated market; just as Halloween II had to compete with not only the original classic but the literal dozens of other slasher movies that came out in 1981, Blair Witch faces the same things (plus a much-hated sequel souring the brand), but with even more time passed and, in turn, far more competition and raised expectations. I don't envy Wingard or Barrett (or even Lionsgate) for trying to achieve what, sadly, might just be impossible. Like I said, I don't dislike the film - there's certainly enough that they got right to make it a decent enough time at the movies, and it will almost certainly be received better than Book of Shadows. But I sure wish it was maybe 2004 right now, and I didn't have dozens of my own reviews saying "it reminded me of Blair Witch", because all of those movies left me almost numb to what this format can offer at its best. Hopefully I'm in the minority and the masses who maybe only watched a few of the Paranormal Activities and Cloverfield can get more out of this trip back to the woods than I was able to. I want another sequel, dammit - just don't make me wait nearly 20 years to get it.

What say you?

*Nerd alert - the brother's name is Randy in the Blair Witch Dossier. It's a canon addition to the overall franchise, so this is technically a mistake on the new movie's part, but I'm guessing the number of people who will pick up on that continuity hiccup is probably in the single digits. Or perhaps just me.


Raising Cain (1992)

SEPTEMBER 14, 2016


Curious - do you folks consider a movie as "seen" if you were so young that you a. barely remember it and b. wouldn't have the proper context to take away as much from it as the filmmaker intended? I usually do, but I'm starting to wonder if I shouldn't, if Raising Cain is any indication. I "saw" it when it hit VHS, making me 12 (maybe just turned 13), but even if I could remember much about it from that one viewing (all I recall: being confused, being smitten with Lolita Davidovich), I hadn't seen anything else of note from Brian De Palma at that stage (the lone, inexplicable exception? Bonfire of the Vanities), and as I watch it now I realize part of the film's fun is seeing him play with his own filmography as much as he does with the usual Hitchcock stuff. PLUS it's easier to follow when you know more about cinematic language in general; I'm sure I would have quickly understood that "Cain" wasn't really there in his scenes if I were to notice that De Palma never cheated and put them both in the same shot, for example.

(Double Impact had already come out - I knew it was possible to do this with one actor!)

While I still haven't seen them all (still no Body Double - much to my chagrin), I've seen enough De Palma by now to realize this one isn't exactly his finest hour, but probably works best for his hardcore fans (as opposed to say, Mission to Mars, which might satisfy you more if you have no idea who he is). Again, he throws in little nods to his past work - the plot feels like a variation on Sisters, and it's probably only his fans that will laugh instead of getting freaked out when a baby carriage starts rolling toward a staircase during the film's climax. Plus it's got plenty of his gee-whiz camerawork, including an epic 4+ minute long-take (a walk and talk, no less) that takes the characters down two flights of stairs and an elevator, finally ending on a corpse's ridiculous death face. The average moviegoer will not notice or at least not think much of these elements, but if you're familiar with his work it's sort of like comfort food, especially since it was his first thriller in nearly a decade.

But whether you're a BDP fan or not, I think we can all agree that the highlight of the film is John Lithgow's performance(s), as he plays at least five characters throughout the film, each with their own unique mannerisms and vocal inflection. Two of them are distinguished by their appearance (one older, one in drag), but the other three are just "off-the-shelf" Lithgow, and yet it's instantly clear when a new personality takes over - in particular the scene where Frances Sternhagen is interviewing him. When he snaps awake (she's hypnotizing him), you can tell right away it's not Carter or Cain, but a new personality we haven't met yet - just from how he's fidgeting and looking at her! Naturally, he didn't even get nominated for any mainstream awards, let alone win any due to the fact that the film was kinda/sorta horror and it also wasn't a big hit (if Silence of the Lambs only grossed 10m do you think it'd win Best Picture? Or even get nominated? Hah!). He DID get nominated for a Saturn award, yet lost to Gary Oldman for Dracula (kinda hard to argue, really), as did Bruce Willis (Death Becomes Her) and Chevy Chase (Invisible Man), which was probably the first and last time Bruce and Chevy were ever up for the same award.

However, a big draw of Lithgow's performance was kind of ruined by the film's re-structuring. When cutting the film, De Palma second guessed himself and didn't put enough faith in the audience to follow his non-chronological narrative, and so he recut it to be in order. This makes it (somewhat) easier to follow, sure, but it also gives the movie a very strange pace, because what was designed to be a twist halfway through (that Lithgow's character was a killer, not the "Mr. Mom" wet blanket he appeared to be in the original version's first half hour or so) was now pretty much the first scene in the movie. This would be fine if it was a movie about a guy living a double life (Mr. Brooks comes to mind), but it's not that kind of movie at all, so the (now) later scenes of him acting like a completely normal guy feel out of place. Because they are! Granted, there's no way in hell that the ads wouldn't have given away the multiple personalities element, so we'd know he was nuts no matter how the movie was cut, but knowing something from a trailer is different than knowing it too early in the full narrative. Like Psycho - even if you know Janet Leigh dies in the shower ahead of time, it's WHEN it happens (i.e. the end of the first act) that makes it such a shock, because even if you knew that her character died you'd probably assume it was somewhere near the end.

Luckily, this new Blu-ray from Scream Factory offers a one of a kind bonus feature - a cut of the film assembled by a fan that follows the original script's ordering. Alas, the new cut's editor, Peet Gelderblom, didn't have access to the scenes that were excised from the theatrical cut as a result of the new structure, so it's hardly a perfect execution (you almost have to watch the theatrical cut first just to know the difference when it jumps back in time), but if you mentally fill in those blanks it's easy to see that it's the superior way to watch the movie. This version keeps us more or less in Davidovich's POV (literally, at one point) for a while, allowing Lithgow's sudden turn to be the shock we were never afforded in the theatrical, and it also keeps the mystery of Carter/Cain's father (also Lithgow) slightly more compelling since we don't meet him 10 minutes in like we do in the theatrical. Both versions leave you guessing if Dr. Nix is truly alive or just another personality until the very end (in fact after about 45 minutes I don't think there's any major reordering at all), but the subplot just flows better in the recut version.

One thing the disc does NOT offer, sadly, is footage of Gregg Henry acting against Lithgow. Even though you never see two Lithgows at once, the actor still needed someone to interact with for the dialogue, and Henry did that for him throughout the shooting (in addition to his regular role as the head cop investigating the missing children). I think it would have been great to see, but alas the movie was shot in 1991/1992, long before anyone thought to record a film's entire production so it could have good blu-ray features. Instead, the disc offers a ton of interviews, including ones with Lithgow and Henry (as well as Paul Hirsch, one of the three editors), and you can't even complain about De Palma not offering one since the disc hits at the same time as the simply titled De Palma, a documentary which is basically a feature length interview anyway and covers all of his films including Cain. Lithgow's runs a half hour and is obviously the big draw, but they're all loaded with the usual fun anecdotes and recollections - it's a bummer they didn't cut them all together for a feature length retrospective (their combined runtime is almost as long as the movie itself, in fact) like they did with Day of the Dead and The Offspring, but it's not a big deal. The 2nd disc offers the recut as well as some background info on how that came together, as well as De Palma's sole "appearance" on the disc - his note saying how much he liked seeing the cut and wished he hadn't second guessed himself in the first place.

Again, I haven't seen Body Double (I swear I'll fix that soon), but I consider Blow Out to be a masterpiece and I really, love Dressed to Kill, and quite like Sisters (moreso after suffering through its remake), so I can't exactly say Raising Cain is an essential De Palma thriller when he has so many great ones to choose from (sort of like how Prince of Darkness is awesome but not even top 5 Carpenter. But it's deserving of more love than it gets, so I'm glad Scream Factory and Universal are working together a lot now, because otherwise there's little chance this minor little gem would have gotten a spiffy Blu-ray release. And I in turn probably wouldn't have gotten around to revisiting it until I decided to do some sort of massive De Palma appraisal/catch-up (I would skip Redacted, for the record), which is something I should do anyway. My favorite is Carlito's Way and it's been nearly 20 years since I watched that one! Plus he jumps genres a lot, so if I did them chronologically it wouldn't be repetitive or anything. I think I'll do this!

What say you?


The Disappointments Room Review

Hey all, if you'd like my take on The Disappointments Room (starring Kate Beckinsale - they've barely advertised the movie so you're forgiven if you're not sure what movie I'm talking about), head over to BirthMoviesDeath, since it ran there instead of here. Why didn't Devin or someone write a review, you may ask? Well, as it turns out, I'm the only one of like ten writers there who bothered to see it, which, as you'll learn if you read my review, makes me the dumbest of the lot. At least Moviepass paid for it. If you don't want to read it, I'll sum up: the only reason to watch it is to admire Ms. Beckinsale, and you can do that again in a few months with Underworld 5 anyway.


Tell Me How I Die (2016)



The easiest complaint to lobby at the slasher sub-genre is that they lack ideas when it comes to narrative, saving too much of the relative creativity for the kill scenes while giving the killer a motive we've seen in a dozen other films. The new slasher Tell Me How I Die bucks this trend, utilizing a fairly unique idea for a body count flick - a group of college students who are earning extra cash by participating in a new drug study find that what they took (a memory enhancement drug that hopes to combat Alzheimer's) allows them to see glimpses of the future. One sees nearly everyone being killed by an unseen murderer as a result, and thus naturally her visions start coming true. It's a bit Final Destination-y, sure, but by applying the basic concept (seeing everyone die and trying to stop it from happening) to a traditional masked killer/single location scenario is enough to give it its own identity, and beyond the vision scene it's about as much of a Final Destination knockoff as Child's Play is of Magic (which is to say, not really one at all).

The key difference is that while the Final Destination movies embrace the nutty concept and make the films a lot of fun to watch, Tell Me How I Die is an interminable bore, running at least 20 minutes too long and barely using the concept for anything interesting. The best death scene is that of a security guard who gets his foot caught in a bear trap and then crawls his way to presumed safety, only to get his damn head caught in one (he doesn't crawl much after that), and he had nothing to do with the experiment or visions. The others are mostly off-screen (even a basic stabbing!), with the film committing the number one cardinal sin of slashers: offing a bunch of people in one fell swoop, which is only acceptable if it's a spectacular death scene (think The Collection). Here, the killer just gases a bunch of the anonymous test subjects (including one girl you'd swear was inspired by Barb from Stranger Things if it wasn't impossible for them to have seen the show before getting this film shot/released), and even that is mostly off-screen. It's funny, early on I actually commented that the movie had too many characters, assuming there would be some mass death scene to get things on track, but I was thinking more on the lines of The Burning - not a friggin GAS sequence in a slasher. I mean, Christ. That'd be like a giant monster killing people by shooting them.

(OK I might like to see that.)

Worse, naturally the gassing doesn't kill ALL of them, but the script takes way too much time to get the body count moving along after that, with the five survivors lasting way too long before any of them are offed. This would be fine if they didn't know they were in danger and engaging in normal behavior, but they see the killer even BEFORE the gas sequence, so they're in hysteric, "we gotta get out of here!" mode the entire time, which gets awfully repetitive and grating - and again, the movie is too damn long as it is. Even at the slasher standard time of 88 minutes, you'd probably get sick of seeing these people run through corridors and arguing about how the visions work long before the ending finally came, so this is almost legitimate torture. Add in the obligatory "We see a thing happen and then snap back to realize it's just a vision of something we're about to watch again with a minor variation" scenes and you have a movie that runs 105 or so minutes with maybe 10 of them offering anything interesting or exciting.

For no real reason, the movie is set during a horrific blizzard - the subjects are told they can't go outside because they need to be observed round the clock (this doesn't stop one character from shrieking "They've been watching us the WHOLE TIME?!?!" when a two way mirror is discovered, by the way), so it could be bright and sunny for all it matters. It's mostly an excuse to give the killer a "costume" (read: a big coat and either a hat or a hood, I couldn't really tell), not that it matters since there's zero mystery to the whodunit angle as its someone we had never seen before anyway. Some of the kids make their way to a car and sit in it for a while debating their next move, but the cold doesn't play much of a part - the car works, so they just turn on the heat, and even when they're outside they barely seem to notice the elements. The entire movie was apparently shot in Los Angeles, which would explain why the snow and cold didn't bother them (because it was either fake or CGI), but for the life of me I can't really see a point to why they bothered going to all that effort. There's a nice shot of the heroine driving up to the isolated study building, surrounded by snow-covered trees, but you can see that in the trailer anyway so it's hardly a selling point for the film.

" If the movie DOES have one saving grace, it's William Mapother as the doctor running the test. He's a bit "off" (I don't want to offend anyone by labeling him with the wrong disorder, because the movie doesn't name it, so let's just say his character seems to fall on a certain "spectrum" and leave it at that), and it's fascinating watching that kind of person deal with the usual horror movie cliches. When he's on the safe side of the door and the kids are banging on it asking him to open it, he casually explains that he won't do that because he's safe and they're not, which is hilarious. Plus he's kind of a villain, so it doesn't really matter to him if any of the kids get killed as he's only concerned about his drug test - not exactly a unique plot point in itself, but seeing those sentiments expressed by a guy who might as well be asking if anyone has any gum as opposed to a sneering/sleazy villain (think Burke in Aliens) gives those moments a little more life than they'd usually offer in this day and age - and certainly more than the rest of the movie can bother to provide. I wish I could say Mark Rolston (the only other person in the movie I recognized) offered the same sort of reprieve, but he's tasked with a silly accent that does him no favors. Good job, movie, you made me dread another scene with a great character actor like Mark Rolston.

I guess I should mention the "Youtube superstar" of the movie, the Asian guy on the poster (I won't use his name so as not to attract his fans - I've already seen some of their over-exaggerated fawning and I want no part of it). He's pretty terrible, trying to be the comic relief with lines that aren't funny, and sits out a large chunk of the middle section until stumbling out as a would-be red herring (if anyone buys this for a second, they sure picked a shitty slasher movie to be the first one they apparently ever saw). So despite his poster presence, he's not really that big of a character - I'd compare him to maybe Ted in Friday the 13th Part 2 in terms of significance, and then I'd just continue sighing that people with lots of social media followers are considered draws for modern horror films. Silver lining: it didn't work, as besides myself and my friends, there was only one other guy in the theater... for a movie showing once a day at one theater, which presumably should be drawing in bigger crowds since all potential Los Angeles viewers are being funneled into this one screening. Good tactic, producers!

It's a shame that the movie didn't work for me at all; I love to champion slashers, and to its credit it's at least well-made on a technical sense, and despite spending a lot of the time yelling the characters aren't THAT obnoxious (no one's cheating on their spouse, so they're already ahead of like half of modern horror movies with college-aged characters in that department). But when the hook is a total bust, the deaths are almost all off-screen, and we never get a really good look at the killer (let alone enjoy a nice stalking sequence or anything like that), it's just a total failure in the departments that count. A bad book doesn't get saved because they chose a nice font.

What say you?


Morgan (2016)



Not too long before I sat down to write this review, I saw that Morgan had one of the worst openings of all time for a movie playing on 2,000 screens or more (i.e. a movie they figured would attract a big audience - otherwise they'd open it much smaller), which can't be a fun thing for anyone involved. I mean when it's something like Major League: Back to the Minors (near Morgan on that sad little list), fine - that's a movie no one wanted and a sequel missing the cast that made the first two films popular, so it deserves the demerit. But an original sci-fi thriller (no, it's not really horror - bear with me, I'm getting to that) should have at least inspired more curiosity, especially when the cast is loaded with interesting character actors and dominated by three female leads - a rarity for all genres, not just this particular one.

But IS it technically original? The trailer kind of sold a different movie, something more akin to Hollow Man or Species, with a lab experiment going awry and the victim offing everyone involved, but there's one other thing it played up that's definitely accurate: Ridley Scott's involvement. His son Luke made his directorial debut here, and it's not uncommon for a big name director dad to throw his name on their child's project to help them get it going (look for Martin Scorsese's new superhero movie for very, very sad proof), but there's a little more than just a ceremonial involvement going on here, which would require spoilers. So if you're one of the 7 billion people who didn't see Morgan this weekend and don't want the twist spoiled, please leave now, or at least skip the next two paragraphs.

Right now, there's a sequel to a Ridley Scott classic being shot, but unlike Prometheus Ridley isn't sitting in the director's chair - he's just producing, and I can't help but wonder if he might get some deja vu since he also produced this, which kind of feels like a blend between low-key remake and prequel of Blade Runner*. As we learn for sure at the end (but many people figured out earlier), Kate Mara's character is actually another genetic experiment, albeit from a different "Phase" than the one played by The Witch's Anya Taylor-Joy, the title character who has shown signs of murderous aggression and needs to be evaluated - should she be terminated, or is the risk worth continuing the study? Mara is Lee, the risk assessment consultant (or some buzzword-y title like that) who is sent by the mysterious company to check Morgan out and make that call, but as things get hairy we see Mara is unusually skilled at fighting and survival - just as good as Morgan, in fact! I mean, it's not too hard to figure out that she's more than just a cold-hearted careerwoman, and we know the company is up to no good because it's run by Bryan Cox, but it's not until the final scene, where Cox talks to his partners and we learn the mission wasn't really about Morgan, but Lee, and to see if SHE was a viable asset for them in the long run.

It's here that the BR connection really sunk in for me (if you did see it and figured that part out a lot earlier - forgive me, I was fighting a doze the whole movie due to my ongoing moving process and a week full of very abbreviated sleeping periods), because you can boil the movie down to "Something that looks human but isn't is tasked with finding/eliminating another faux human". They're not called "Replicants" here, but they're pretty much the same - A.I. programs that can pass for human. There are other little connections/references as well, like Giamatti's character, who basically only appears in one scene, a lengthy interrogation of Morgan designed to get a rise out of her and find out for sure what she's capable of - not unlike Blade Runner's Voight-Kampff test. It also shares that film's rather cold and unpleasant tone; it's easy to see why Fox released this at the end of the summer, as it's even more of a downer than Splice, another genetically engineered "human" goes crazy movie that this would comfortably share shelf space with.

Except, despite its presence here, it's not really even close to horror, despite the trailer playing up those freakier scenes. Yeah, there's a body count and there is interest from genre fans as it's Anya's first post-Witch movie, but none of it is really played for scares, and the mad science stuff is kept to a minimum (I only put that genre tag on here because it will be of interest to people looking for that sort of movie). The last 20 minutes are more like a straight up action film than anything else, as they involve a car chase, a shootout, and not one but two hand to hand fights between Morgan and Lee that are more Seagal than Species. Despite the sci-fi prominence, Splice really earned its genre placement with that horrifying demonstration scene and Dren's transformations, but there's nothing like that here, and I can't help but think Fox really blew it in the marketing on this one, making it look more like a creepy "locked in with a monster" movie than the low-key sci-fi film it really is.

And there's no easier bit of evidence of that than the fact that the trailer barely shows Rose Leslie at all, and yet she's almost a third lead as opposed to supporting character. Her name is Amy, and she's the behaviorist of the little Crichton-y group tasked with monitoring/caring for Morgan - and she's also something akin to a girlfriend to her (who is referred to as "it" by pretty much everyone else). So when Lee and some of the others decide Morgan has to be terminated, she's the one making sure Morgan is set free instead, and gets the most interesting arc in the movie as a result when Morgan starts killing everyone off. At first, she sees Morgan's actions as a sort of "They deserved it" kind of thing, but when Morgan takes down someone who was actually trying to help her, Amy starts showing doubt - maybe they were right? Morgan shows zero signs of aggression toward her, so we're not really afraid for her safety, but it's interesting to see how torn up she gets over her loved one's actions, and you wonder if/when she will finally turn against the increasingly uncontrollable Morgan (or if/when Morgan WILL indeed go so far that she hurts/kills Amy as well).

It's also interesting that it's a summer studio movie (an R rated genre one at that) primarily focused on three women, none of whom seem to be interested in men (in a movie written and directed by men, no less). It makes the movie's failure all the more sigh-worthy to me; every other week the bloggers and "Film Twitter" are finding things to complain about re: women in movies (low point of the summer - the complaints about Apocalypse choking Mystique in an X-Men movie where a guy with all the power in the world required two women to help him), and yet here's a movie where the women are ass-kickers, intelligent, and not defined in the slightest by their relationship to a male love interest. And none of those rabble rousers see it, let alone champion it. I don't think it's a perfect movie, but can you blame the studios for sticking to what works when they do something unique and no one shows up?

As for what makes it imperfect, well for one thing it's not particularly complicated - as misleading as the trailer is, it still manages to hit upon just about every major plot point (save Leslie's character), as there isn't much else to it beyond that. Even at 90 minutes, it feels a bit stretched to get to feature length; to be fair in retrospect some such scenes were just trying to misdirect us (going back into spoiler territory here: Lee jogging is a good example), but it doesn't make the movie any more engaging in the moment. It's hard to really like Mara's character, and it's also hard to feel any sympathy for Morgan after a while, when she coldly murders someone who had only tried to help her. Not that sympathy is really what Scott and writer Seth Owen seemed to be going for, but it still makes it hard to really get attached emotionally to the movie. Especially if you're deaf - Max Richter's score was wonderful and if I heard it isolated I'd probably assume it was for some Oscar bait drama.

But ultimately its biggest hurdle is that it's unfortunately too similar to too many other movies, particularly Ex Machina and the aforementioned Splice. The film is on a lower budget than either of those, and with a lot of it probably going to cast (I haven't even mentioned Toby Jones or Michelle Yeoh!), that means the movie spends a lot of time in the same few rooms and with a lot of talk instead of action, lacking the unique makeup FX of Splice or the visual prowess of Ex Machina (which won an Oscar, don't forget) while running through similar story beats. The hook is the thing we can't really talk about, and even if we could, it's not like it makes up an entire third act or something - it's a last minute reveal. Even if you figure it out sooner, it's merely a confirmation of something you suspected, not a game-changing plot point. Based on the box office, we can't expect Morgan 2.0 anytime soon (of course that would be the title, come on), so all we have is this one little movie that's perfectly enjoyable in that lazy Sunday kind of way, ending on a beat that makes you wish the filmmakers had gotten to it sooner.

What say you?

*I also don't particularly love that movie. Huge fan of the director, but it probably wouldn't even rank in my top 10 of his films. I've tried on numerous occasions, with at least two versions of it, but it just doesn't connect with me beyond appreciation on a visual level. And don't go looking for what movie I mean if you missed the * in the text, because that's the spoiler you were avoiding, hence the vague details here.


Don't Breathe (2016)

AUGUST 26, 2016


I've often noted that the home invasion sub-genre has limited options for as much variety as you see in slashers, survival horror, etc. This doesn't mean the films are getting bad, but it's gonna take some inspired ideas to keep the concept fresh, and that's precisely what Fede Alvarez has done with Don't Breathe, a home invasion movie that swaps the usual roles, making our heroes into the ones that enter someone's home while the villain is the guy that actually lives there. It's not a deconstruction or anything like that, but it offers those same kind of moments and thrills all while playing up the notion that our heroes aren't in their comfort zone this time - they're not even sure how to find their way around the predictably oversized home, with a labyrinthine basement and man-sized air ducts, and a dog that gets to be a mini-villain instead of just getting offed like the poor mutts usually do in these things when the bad guy needs to reduce threats.

Of course, the real hook of the movie isn't the inverse invasion idea - it's the fact that the villain (Stephen Lang) is a blind man. He's no saint (bro), and his senses of smell and hearing have been attuned to make up for the lack of sight, but what really works about the film is that (save for a bit at the end) he's not preternaturally gifted with a sense of perception like Daredevil or Eli (the one with the Book). Lang is fond of firing his gun, but he's a horrible shot; the only times he manages to hit anything of note it's basically by chance, and ends up destroying more of his own stuff than the damn robbers. He also makes plenty of mistakes that he wouldn't had he been able to see; there's a great example in the 3rd act that I can't really illustrate (it involves garden shears), and even with his attuned hearing he walks right past our heroes more than once without realizing that they were within reach. The movie even finds a few moments of levity related to his disability - there's an upside down framed photo in his living room that I couldn't help but smirk at even though it's not exactly the most PC gag in the world.

In fact, I wish Alvarez had spent more time on the sequence where Lang isn't aware anyone else is in the house with him. As anyone who has seen the trailer knows, our heroes are a trio who break into his home, but when he catches and kills one, he is under the impression the man was working alone. There's about 10-15 minutes (less?) where he works to clean up the body and reinforce the entry points, most of which involves the other two having to stay quiet/still to not give their position away, and to me this was more satisfying and even suspenseful than the more traditional cat and mouse stuff that followed. Not that the latter half lacks thrills - Lang's the one who knows his way around, after all, so every single escape attempt (and subsequent scare) is capped with him showing up to block their path, a standard villain move that makes a lot more sense here than in the average slasher. Of COURSE he'll get ahead of them - they're often going slow trying to stay quiet and also trying to find their way around, whereas he's spent who knows how many years finding his way around the place in the same darkness they're currently battling. It never feels like a cheat when he "teleports" somewhere - I totally buy that he'd be able to move around with precision and use their unfamiliarity with the layout to his advantage.

But the quieter bits offered that kind of breath-holding audience experience - you can hear a pin drop in the theater when Jane Levy or Dylan Minnette accidentally step on a creaky board or find themselves pinned down in a bathroom or something as he goes about his business. By the end, they're not even trying to be quiet half the time - it's just stalk n' chase fare with a hook. To put it another way, if he wasn't blind, the first chunk of the movie wouldn't make any sense, but (save for his poor marksmanship) the rest would pretty much play out the same. The film already feels a bit like The People Under The Stairs (poor people robbing some asshole to better their shitty lives), right down to the dog that can pursue them in smaller areas, so I wish there was more opportunity for the blind factor to play a part in his pursuit. I mean, hell, near the end he manages to find Levy like a block away (before you cry spoiler, the movie opens with him bringing her back to his house before rewinding to see how she got into that situation), so I'd be lying if I said I preferred the perverse sight (heh) of a borderline Michael Myers not even knowing he had a couple of victims in the same room.

Also (now THIS is spoiler territory, skip this paragraph if you wish) the script described a bit too much of a hellish life for our heroine to escape from, making it far from likely that she'd be killed or even that she'd somehow escape without the money. It's not enough that her mom was just a drunk that didn't care (in the one scene we get of her home life, she takes care of her little sister while the mom gets drunk on the couch, mumbling insults her way), but we also find out she was abused (locked in a trunk!), and to top it off she promises her little sister that she's going to take her away from their Detroit hellhole in favor of California. In other words, there is little to no doubt she will succeed, so the suspense factor is a bit crippled. Faring better in that department is Minnette's character, who seems to have an OK life and is seemingly just doing this because he's in love with her. When Lang sets his non-sights on Minnette, I felt myself tensing up again, but for her, apart from one diversion I won't spoil (except to say that it yields an INCREDIBLE sight gag involving a stray hair or two), I never really felt she was in any real danger, because I am too attuned to major studio horror movies (even R-rated ones) to buy the idea that she'd be killed off and that poor little sister would be abandoned. Minnette's less noble motives made his survival chances a lot smaller, and in turn his scenes (they're split up more often than not, I think) get back a lot of that nailbiter suspense that was reduced once Lang was on the prowl.

Another thing in the movie's favor is that Lang isn't just some mindless psycho - he's even kind of sympathetic in a few moments. The reason he has money is because he got a big settlement from a rich family whose daughter killed his in a car accident, and it's downright heartbreaking when they find him sleeping with a home video. of his 3-4ish daughter playing and singing playing in the background. He obviously can only hear the sounds of his daughter that was taken away from him so cruelly, and (over emotional dad alert!) in that moment I was suddenly paralyzed with fear that the tape would somehow get broken over the course of the evening. Like, grab the money and leave, fine - but please don't take away his sleeping aid! And a later plot development allows us to feel kind of bad for him (in an icky way) as he deals with another loss - it was unexpected and beneficial to the film's overall strength. I know I called him Michael Myers before, but there's a real guy in there that surfaces every now and then - just enough to keep balance, because while he's "the bad guy", he's also a guy defending his home and property from robbers. In People Under the Stairs, Fool was kind of suckered into the crime - these three are all old enough to know right from wrong.

Speaking of spoilers, I was also happy to realize the trailer was built mostly on scenes from the film's first half. It still gives too much away, I think (i.e. the existence of another person in the house, if not their actual role in the proceedings), but at least there's a point where I realized the only reason I knew what was coming was due to the film's own dumb choice to show a scene from near the end right at the top. It's thankfully vague compared to some others that have pulled this stunt, but there's enough info in what we see - and what we DON'T see - to make me wish they rethought this decision. I get what they're trying to do, in order to "surprise" us later, but it's too obvious that's the plan - better to just not set up that sort of thing at all rather than let us watch the movie wondering when the movie will "catch up" to what we already saw.

Ultimately, I'm surprised I was able to write seven paragraphs about the movie, because what really works about it is how simplistic it is. No one shows up to help the heroes (i.e. a cop who heard a disturbance or whatever), the house is big without being silly (no Halloween: Resurrection style endless basement/tunnel section), no one has long passages of dialogue, etc. It's just lean and efficient, and dark enough to earn its R rating without becoming nihilistic and unpleasant - and far more satisfying to me than Alvarez' previous film, the Evil Dead remake (Sam Raimi apparently still stands by it - he produced this one too). Since it's built on suspense and borderline plotless, I'm not sure I'd ever revisit it (plus I'm not sure I could handle the goofy ladybug shit again), but for the one time it's a damn satisfying thriller that gets more right than wrong, and continues the unprecedented horror hit streak - all five of this summer's major horror releases (this, Purge 3, Conjuring 2, Shallows, and Lights Out) were winners, something that's even more impressive when you consider how weak the big tentpoles have been on average. And even though I don't particularly love the Evil Dead remake, I can certainly agree that Alvarez is no hack, and I hope he sticks around in the genre for a while.

What say you?

P.S. There's a new Screen Gems logo attached to the film, so I feel obligated to share this again instead of the trailer that gives too much away.


Necrophobia 3D (2014)

AUGUST 16, 2016


It's rare, but every now and then I see an underwhelming movie at (or, in this case, out of) Fantastic Fest, and my reaction is always the same: I've done something wrong as a viewer. The festival is so fun and its programmers so like-minded (yes, before anyone points it out - I work for one of them), and most of what I see is, even if I don't love it, at least so nutty or unique that I can ADMIRE it, that those odd lackluster entries almost make me feel bad for saying so. Such is the case with Necrophobia 3D, which played at the festival in 2014 - a year I missed due to my son's recent birth, but had I been there I almost certainly would have been at one of its showings, as on paper it sounds exactly like my kind of thing. Plus I still get a kick out of legitimate 3D when used properly, and lacking a home set I usually make extra efforts to see them in their native gimmicky glory.

But this would have been one of those screenings where I start looking at my food instead of the screen, because it landed in that decidedly un-sweet spot of being both hard to follow and also not particularly compelling - the movie didn't do enough to make piecing together its narrative worth the effort. It's got a good hook: a giallo-esque thriller about a man whose twin brother dies and then everyone in his life starts following him to the grave, but there are no viable red herrings to keep the "mystery" afloat, so you're just waiting for the obvious reveal. When it comes, rather early (then again the movie is only 75 minutes with credits so even scenes in the 3rd act are "rather early"), I started wondering if it was a misdirect, and one of the other characters would turn out to be the REAL culprit, but that didn't happen. Instead...

(OK, spoilers are coming!)

...the movie keeps doubling down on its central "twist", which is a Raising Cain kinda deal with multiple incarnations of the same character. Whether they're figments of his imagination or actual physical beings that have come to life somehow, I'm not sure - I even rewatched the last 25 minutes or so and still couldn't come down hard on either answer. Then writer/director Daniel de la Vega throws a fun but even less coherent time travel element into the proceedings, showing that the mysterious phone call our protagonist got near the beginning of the film was sent by one of his doubles here at the end of the (otherwise linear) movie. It's the sort of twist that'd be great if it was the only one in a film (and, you know, had some logical way of occurring), but it's one too many for the film, which - again - already suffered from simply not being particularly engaging. Our killer wipes out all of the supporting cast almost as soon as they become important, and even a 75 minute movie should have time for more than 5-6 important characters - ESPECIALLY for an alleged mystery.

Plus there's no real story. The brother dies, our main man Dante freaks out, then the wife is killed, he freaks out, then a priest is killed... you get the gist. Not that any of the classic giallo movies had current-day narratives that were really terrific, but you'd get the nutty backstory and colorful cast of characters to make up for it, not to mention the usually stylish murder sequences. Here, most of them are fairly quick - the priest is offed almost the second Dante leaves the room, instead of de la Vega giving us a nice buildup with the guy wandering around his church and being pursued by the gloved killer. In fact, I often wondered why they bothered with the 3D - apart from a couple of the scenes where Dante was having a mental collapse, and maybe (if done well) the wide shots of his tailor workshop (mannequins pop up with frequency), there wasn't anything in the film that seemed like it would benefit from the technology, so I am curious what inspired them to do it that way in the first place. If it was five years ago, sure - every other movie was in 3D, it seems. But this was shot in 2013, when 3D was already past its peak popularity, so who knows. Maybe they got a tax break or something? Whatever the reason, not counting post-converts it's the most pointless 3D entry I can recall since the woeful Julia X.

The titular phobia is equally pointless in the narrative - it's the fear of being near a dead body, but this isn't something particularly worth revolving a movie around. For starters, it's not like this is some weird tic - who the hell DOES want to be around dead bodies (well, I'm sure there's a term for it, but it'd be more interesting to watch), and phobia or not, all of the people who die in the movie are very close to him, making his inability to be around them kind of understandable. When a protagonist suffers from a phobia, part of the filmmaker's job is to get the audience - who presumably doesn't feel that way for the most part - to walk in his shoes a little bit. Agoraphobia movies usually do a fine job with this; you and I don't feel any particular fear of going outside, so they will employ heightened sound effects, off-kilter angles, etc. to make the act of walking out the front door seem like a herculean feat. Here, actor Luis Machin just sort of yelps and staggers around, which I'm guessing lots of people would do if they found their brother or wife dead. And by the halfway point he's around corpses in every other scene anyway so it's not even a "thing" anymore.

On the plus side, Machin does a fine job with the various incarnations of his character; the main one, Dante, is kind of a Toby Jones-y nebbish, but the others are like Richard Lynch level menacing - it's a shame we don't get to see much of his brother Tomas, since we'd get a fleshed out third version. Also, I'm sure it wasn't intentional, but the killer's dark appearance and black hat give him a Halloween Man in Black vibe that amused me (especially considering that mystery was equally easy to solve and woefully underwhelming). If the movie threw Druids into the mix I might have actually liked it more, now that I think of it - it's nutty, but not nutty ENOUGH to elevate to "WTF" kind of cinema. It's just got some twists for the sake of having twists, I suspect, and when you consider the 3D, it's not hard to think the movie was an exercise of some sort to try out the cameras for a more elaborate project. You can almost hear a producer asking for some horror script that could be banged out quickly so they could work out the kinks on a movie that would find an audience anyway.

Oh well. I'm all for filmmakers trying to revive the giallo genre, but Necrophobia lacks a lot of the things that make those movies so enjoyable, and doesn't really do anything unique on its own to make up for it. It's watchable enough, and again quite short, so you can't accuse it of wasting too much of your time, but apart from admiring Machin acting opposite himself in a few scenes and the Lost Highway-tinged phone call stuff, there isn't enough here to really make it worth seeking out. I later asked some attendees of that year's Fantastic Fest and few even remembered the title let alone the movie, so it clearly didn't make much of an impression, and I probably would have been downright angry if I picked it over (scans that year's lineup) Spring, Cub, or Let Us Prey to name a few. Of course, that's the nature of fests, and even part of the fun to take such gambles, but it really stings when those gambles don't pay off. The food would have been good though.

What say you?

p.s. I'm not sure when it's coming out to see for yourself, I saw it via screener for my freelance job but that means nothing with regards to a looming release. I couldn't find it on Blu even in other regions, so maybe it's just in limbo? I normally don't bother reviewing movies like this since it defeats the purpose of the site, but it was the only thing I've watched in two weeks thanks to my move (which I'm STILL technically in the middle of doing) and I wanted to post something so you guys knew I wasn't dead.


13 Cameras (2015)

AUGUST 2, 2016


The best thing I can say about 13 Cameras (formerly Slumlord) is that despite a plot (and new title) that revolves around an insane landlord using, er, 13 cameras to film his tenants to get his rocks off, it's NOT a found footage/POV type movie. We see a few moments from his camera angles, of course, but even though the film rarely leaves the house where all of them are placed, writer/director Victor Zarcoff (making his debut here) avoids the temptation to fit in with so many other indie horror films of the past five years. He shot it like a real movie! The cameras are unmanned so no one ever has to awkwardly film a friend's death or a loved one's private conversation with them so we can follow the plot!

Of course, that'd be more exciting if the plot was more interesting. Zarcoff admirably did things right with his directing, but his script left a lot to be desired, and while a motive is never necessary for my horror movie killers, the character work is SO stripped down that it almost feels like we were perhaps supposed to supply our own. Certain Friday the 13th characters have more going on than anyone in this movie: we have our (jerk) husband Ryan who cheats on his (insecure) wife Claire with his (uh... pretty?) secretary Hannah, all under the watchful eye of their (crazy) landlord. That's pretty much it; I kept hoping there would be some wrinkle to the proceedings, a slick twist that would make up for the generic scenario, but nope. Nothing even justifies how dumb our heroes have to be for the plot to work, which makes it even harder to deal with.

For example, Ryan always has the secretary come to the home he shares with Claire for them to have their rendezvouses. For the life of me I can't understand why anyone would do this - obviously he waits until his wife goes out with friends to have his mistress come over, but Claire is pregnant - she can come home early unexpectedly due to being tired/sick/etc. (believe me, many a night with my own mistress - my Xbox - was 'ruined' during my wife's pregnancy when she'd no longer feel up to the plans she made). We are given no reason to believe Hannah has a spouse of her own, so why don't they just go to her place? Oh, right - because then the landlord couldn't spy on them. Throughout the movie I kept believing that we had to buy into this idiocy because it would turn out that the landlord was creepy but also believed in family values or something and would give Claire evidence of her husband's infidelity (or even less complicated - she merely finds his monitors and presumable recordings and finds out for herself as a result of his surveillance). But no! She finds out because the idiot tells his drinking buddy, who tells his own wife - Claire's best friend.

I also toyed with the idea that maybe the landlord would be the hero of the movie, because for a brief period Hannah gets a bit Glenn Close and starts calling in the middle of the night, stopping by for awkward exchanges with Claire, etc. It'd be kind of fun if she turned it up a notch and the landlord was forced to give away his surveillance game (which we know he uses to pleasure himself - the movie offers a lovely visual of him cleaning up his mess after watching them shower) in order to rescue his tenants from a crazy woman. But again, the movie can't be bothered to do anything that interesting - at some point the landlord kidnaps her and chains her up in the house, soundproofing the walls so that Ryan and Claire can't hear her screaming all day. As for how this works, the landlord tells them that one locked door leads to an owner's closet (is that a thing?), and even though they break it open fairly early on (looking for tools) they don't really investigate the basement that it leads to, seemingly forgetting all about it shortly thereafter. I have a cupboard in my home that I've never used (and never will - we're being forced to move next week due to the owner selling our place, so forgive me if HMAD goes silent for a week or two!) and it kind of bugs me - these folks let an entire FLOOR slip their mind.

And true to form, the film does nothing interesting with the idea that a married couple is oblivious to the fact that the husband's mistress is tied up in their basement. Even when they inevitably discover her, Claire doesn't really freak out - Ryan goes running around with a bat looking for the landlord while the two of them hide in the bathroom, with zero awkwardness to it. At this point I've wondered "Why did they bother?" about far too many of the film's subplots, so (spoilers ahead) I couldn't even care much when it ends with a ton of unanswered questions - the landlord kills Ryan and Hannah and kidnaps Claire, keeping the baby for himself. Zarcoff even doubles down on the dumbness of this by including a scene where two cops look around seven weeks later, acting on the landlord's behalf who apparently called them after they failed to pay rent and have seemingly vanished. Are we to believe that a man who has a full time job (seemingly an important one since he has an assistant), a woman who keeps in touch with her mother frequently, and best friends who get involved in their marital problems would disappear with no one besides their GODDAMN LANDLORD calling the cops about their disappearance? Even ignoring the fact that the landlord is hardly a normal looking guy (he looks like Stacy Keach playing Carl from Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and talks like Billy Bob in Sling Blade) and would likely be looked at with suspicion by the cops (or pretty much anyone who spent more than 30 seconds with him), this is stupid even by horror movie logic. I can meet a movie halfway on shit like this, but Zarcoff is asking me to pick him up from the airport and drive him 1000 miles in the opposite direction.

It doesn't help matters that the heroes... I won't say "deserve to die", because that's harsh, but I certainly didn't care if any of them lived. Ryan has not one redeeming quality to him (even beyond the infidelity, he's just a dick in general, even to the lady he's banging) and Claire doesn't show a lot of backbone in the face of his betrayal - she kicks him out (actually her friend pretty much does) but calls him back almost instantly when she notices a camera, instead of her friend or the cops. As I've said in the past, it's not necessary to love your protagonists - but there should be a point to it. And it certainly shouldn't be a device employed in this kind of movie, where we in the audience should feel creeped out and sympathetic toward the unwitting victims of the voyeurism. Instead I was just kind of feeling sorry for the landlord that he was stuck with these losers.

The movie showed at Screamfest last year under the Slumlord title; I remember reading the description and thinking it would be found footage (plus Hangman - which I DID like - had a fairly similar plot and two of such things in one week would be pushing it) which is why I skipped it, so I'm glad I made the right call. Even if I fell asleep in the theater it wouldn't have been worth being stuck with it - at least at home on this screener I was able to break up the viewing in two chunks. I don't know why they changed the title to something so lame (plus it starts on a collage of *15* camera angles, starting things off on the wrong foot), especially since the only thing the movie really has going for it is the "slumlord" character - it's almost fascinating watching someone so completely unhinged be treated normally by every other character. If only the movie was more about his day to day life than the sods we're forced to watch along with him; I'd probably be down for a Slumlord 2. 14 Cameras? Not so much.

What say you?


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